Knock Them Back
Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood
I was planning to end the year quietly; thanking God for my seeing out another year. But somebody knocked me. Somebody knocked me hard, hard. And I can’t knock them back. I can’t knock them back because it’s my fastness that caused them to upset me in the first place. Same thing my maternal grandmother used to say: I will read and read until one day I will drop off the edge of the page, like Christopher Columbus would have dropped off the edge of the flat earth. May I have some round paper, please?
And after I got myself in pickle with the knocking, I could not sleep. The only cure for vexation and sleeplessness is to write. Throw some good, hard words under the same criminal, son of a man, and pray, like a good Christian, the words seek him out, find him, and box him down flat.
This is how the story goes. Growing up and growing old on BBC, I should have fallen asleep that night, listening to the World Service, or to comedy or drama on BBC Radio 4 Extra. No. Too early to sleep, my fastness and me took to surfing all over BBC. Arsenal had drawn nil all with Chelsea and cricketing news was as annoying as the bothersome cricket insect chirping in the gully. The occasional, lone mosquito was glad for the occasion and circled above my busy strip.
It was so I came across the news that Andras Schiff, one of the world’s greatest pianists, played a hugely demanding programme of the Goldberg Variations by Bach, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, on his 60th birthday. The article, by Tim Franks, was captioned, “Andras Schiff: Why I won’t perform in Hungary”.
Franks wrote that Schiff had been described as the greatest musician Hungary had produced since the composers Bela Bartok and Zolton Kodaly, in the first half of the 20th Century. The article went on to outline the reasons for the rupture between Schiff and his homeland.
Schiff said he was opposed to the current political situation in Hungary. His criticism of the government was documented. The disturbing, expressed xenophobia and anti-Semitic stance of the “Movement for a Better Hungary” were recounted. The article reported that it was not just the government that disturbed Schiff. He was annoyed with some of the Hungarian people, who showed very little civilian courage, scared as they were to speak up. He delved into Hungary’s sordid past and referred to the deportation of half a million Jews to Nazi death camps. Schiff lamented that he had been threatened. Apparently if he returns to Hungary they will cut off both of his (piano) hands. He rightly noted that art and politics cannot be disentangled and that the audience matters to performers.
So what really knocked me and suspended my slumber? Franks said that Schiff could not understand how senior Nazis could commit terrible crimes, and in the next moment, listen to Beethoven’s string quartet and weep like children. What!?
I have to tell you that I took a long, tortuous journey from first dismissing and discarding European classical music to holding on to it with all the familiarity of a kaiso. I had to listen and read and play and listen again, until one day, in cold London, I found myself chipping to Dvorak’s cello concerto in a semibreve moment right after jigging to David Rudder. Classical music, including some of Andras Schiff’s recordings, comprises one third of the 19,000 plus songs on my iPod. Schiff can play and talk about Beethoven like the literal back of his hand.
So how is it that this great musician, this conveyor of emotions, this champion quencher of musical thirst, does not understand a simple, fundamental, musical fact? When the senior Nazis weep, they are not weeping for the terrible crimes they commit. Schiff knows that. The weeping like children is all about the collision and collusion of emotions that only music can release; that pure, naked, incandescent ecstasy that says the world is now what it should be; void of the evil and lesser ones. In the beginning was the word, and the glorious music after the inglorious deed takes them back to the script of primal, puerile purity.
It is all very disturbing to me because Schiff should know that the most maddening thing is to see and feel something that you know someone else sees and feels and yet they claim that the seeing, the feeling, these common human senses, are not all inclusive. They belong to them and to them alone, because they are the special, unique, chosen ones. Chosen by God even!
So we may have to talk until our throats parch and we become dehydrated. The other side will see our just argument and the financial proof, and still claim only they are entitled to make such arguments. They will claim that music and logic and right and reparative justice can change the world. But only they have the right and the authority so to do, if and when they feel to do so.
And so, this business of reparations, and it is a business, is really long, arduous work. But we have to do it because somebody knocked me and my people. And we are not going to take last lick.